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The Ghost of Frankenstein

Posted : 5 months, 4 weeks ago on 14 June 2018 04:59 (A review of The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942))

The Universal Monsters contained a troupe of players both behind and in front of the camera, many of whom performed double or triple duty by working on various entries in the sub-franchises. Think of how Boris Karloff played the Monster, a mummy, and a mad scientist, or how Bela Lugosi was Dracula, Ygor, and a lycanthrope in The Wolf Man. Yet  it’s Lon Chaney Jr. that emerges as the lone actor who played nearly every major monster at least once, vampire in Son of Dracula, werewolf in The Wolf Man, the Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein, and the mummy in The Mummy’s Tomb. The only parts he didn’t play were the Invisible Man, the Phantom, and the Gill-man.


Not too shabby for an actor to get a chance to run-through many of the major icons of horror cinema, but it’s a damn shame that his crack at the Monster is so poor. Chaney Jr. brought enormous amounts of tragedy and neurotic energy to his Larry Talbot, in the process he crafted a character and performance that stands besides the deservedly iconic work of Lugosi and Karloff in Dracula and Frankenstein. Here he seems to merely be hitting the same beats and poses as Karloff without bringing the same amount of interior conflict and carefully modulated sympathy.


It insist just the notable absence of Karloff that causes The Ghost of Frankenstein to go sideways, but the clear lack of funds on display and a script that’s as stitched together as the Monster work against it. The injection of footage from Whale’s 1931 masterpiece point out just how much is missing here. At least we’ve got Lugosi making his second and final appearance as Ygor, and he’s once again delightfully hammy in the part. He goes beyond Brechtian styles of performance and straight into flagrant disregard for the interiority and craft of acting while chewing the scenery. He’s entertaining to watch, far more than Cedric Hardwicke and Lionel Atwill who feel bland here. It’s not really their fault, though.


The Ghost of Frankenstein is all dressed up with nowhere to go. What do you expect from a film that introduces a secondary Frankenstein heir with flippancy towards continuity with the prior film? There’s the gloriously improbably story beat to place Ygor’s brain in the Monster’s body, this livens things up for a bit as it’s just so completely bonkers that your reaction to it is but a surrendering to its insanity. While The Ghost of Frankenstein is a disappointment, it has the courage to go down in outlandish self-immolation filmed in as generic a manner as possible.

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Son of Frankenstein

Posted : 5 months, 4 weeks ago on 14 June 2018 04:58 (A review of Son of Frankenstein (1939))

Universal’s horror branch was in decline when the success of a double feature re-release in 1938 of Dracula and Frankenstein provided a shot in the arm. Cut to 1939 and the brand new entry in the dormant Frankenstein franchise, a film that found Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi teaming up for the first time in an entry in the Universal Monsters mega-franchise. They’d both put in the work in genre trailblazers and immortal classics, so the chance to see them team-up was a recipe for success. It’s just a shame that Son of Frankenstein doesn’t quite live up to the thrill of seeing them slathered in putty and chewing on the scenery.


The absence of James Whale in this film is pronounced as much of Son of Frankenstein looks and feels anonymous. Whale’s first two entries contained symphonies of light and shadow, of horror and pathos, of queer subtext and Pre-Code salaciousness, and none of that is here. Much of the gruesome stuff is alluded to more than seen, so you won’t find anything as tragic or terrifying as the creature throwing a little girl into the lake and accidentally drowning her here.


The greatest of the Universal Monster films create a world consumed by shadows, ever-present smoke and fog, and a fairy-story version of European hamlets that feel displaced from time and space. They create a mood, or they give you a performance that transforms the monster into a misunderstood antihero (think of Lon Chaney Jr.’s sweaty, panicked work in The Wolf Man). That seems mildly missing here as we’re instead treated to a son discovering the family legacy, becoming obsessed, but still restoring order in the end. It’s a solid concept, a nice twist on a series that was establishing motifs and themes, but it’s lacking a certain spark. (Forgive the pun.)


A more expressionistic look and feel would have done wonders. Son of Frankenstein was the last of the “A” movies in the series before they transitioned to solid “B” movie fare, and the film functions as something of a transition. It’s not quite a large step-down in quality, but there’s a certain attention to craft and detail that’s lacking here. I suppose that’s what you get when you trade an auteur like Whale or a journeyman like Rowland V. Lee. He keeps the whole thing moving, assembles a pleasing cast, and keeps the basic template in place so it’s not a massive comedown but a noticeable slide.


Basil Rathbone as titular son reclaiming his family’s inheritance and complicated legacy makes for a natural presence in the Universal Monsters canon with his erudite carriage, stiff manners, and Gothic romance looks. While Lionel Atwill gives his Inspector Krogh stiff and withheld emotional textures and body language, and he makes another pleasing addition to the various lawmen of the franchise. But it’s Bela Lugosi as Ygor that steals the show as he goes completely off the nails (gloriously so) in crafting a (literally) broken man hell-bent on revenge.


It’s a shame that Karloff’s final appearance as the creature reverts him not only to a mute but a mere pawn for Ygor’s machinations. Karloff brought unbearable amounts of conflicted agony and a poetic yearning for connection to his version of the Monster in the two prior films, and here he merely functions as a grunting, flailing golem. No wonder he grew tired of the role and left is behind right after this. He would eventually return to the Frankenstein films, but as a mad scientist where his mild lisp and droll diction wrapped around purple prose to grand, theatrical effect. Karloff’s exit from the role would mark the beginning of the end for the Monster as a headline player in the Universal Monsters franchise.


In fact, the next sequel, The Ghost of Frankenstein, would prove to be his final solo outing, as the Monster would only now appear in crossover monster features like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man or House of Frankenstein. If you were to see this particular film as a signpost, it would be as the starting point of the decline and overabundance of sequels of the Universal Monsters. There would remain bright spots, later entries like Creature from the Black Lagoon for example, but the mystery, atmosphere, and dream-like horror of the likes of The Bride of Frankenstein was rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

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Golden Earrings

Posted : 5 months, 4 weeks ago on 14 June 2018 04:57 (A review of Golden Earrings (1947))

Part espionage thriller, part romance, and still Golden Earrings is a dull entry in Marlene Dietrich’s career. The dust had barely settled from WWII when this was unleashed, and this had somehow managed to turn the Nazis into a vague non-threat. It’s also grossly ahistorical in its presentation of the Romani people given that hordes of them were slaughtered during the Holocaust. But hey, Golden Earrings is all about being upbeat, patriotic and patting yourself on the back for being inclusive unlike those damn Nazis.


Somehow shoving a glamorous star personality into brownface and a black wig doesn’t a compelling enough reason for a film make. Dietrich gives the role her all, but everything seems beneath her magnetic spell. Without a strong director, not just Josef von Sternberg but the likes of Billy Wilder or Orson Welles, Dietrich seems like a vessel with nothing to fill her and no one to nurture her post-modern acting style. She looks ridiculous under all that bronzer and those false eyelashes, and she doesn’t generate much heat with Ray Milland as her British spy who meets her, disguises himself as her dead husband, and learns an important lesson about tolerance while slowly falling in love along the way. If Golden Earrings isn’t the nadir of both of their careers, then I shudder to think of what could possibly be worse.    

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The Flame of New Orleans

Posted : 5 months, 4 weeks ago on 14 June 2018 04:56 (A review of The Flame of New Orleans (1941))

Glamour puss extraordinaire Marlene Dietrich gets a chance to poke gentle fun at her icy, remote goddess persona in The Flame of New Orleans. We’re a long way from the sustained romantic luxury and exotic stylization found in the Josef von Sternberg films here, and Dietrich actually exhibits personality here rather than function as another prop in the elaborate tableau. It’s just a shame that the rest of the film isn’t up to her level. Roland Young is stuffy, Bruce Cabot is a pleasant surprise in the Clark Gable-esque role, Anne Revere gets a chance to play high society instead of frumpy matron, Theresa Harris finds perfect synchronicity with Dietrich as her maid/co-conspirator, but it’s all in service towards a script that starts with a hooky narration and never expands beyond that initial impression. The Flame of New Orleans is a lightweight affair, an amiable obscurity buried within the Dietrich myth that’s fun to discover in a career box set or retrospective wedged in-between towering greats like The Shanghai Express and Witness for the Prosecution.   

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Ultra-Lounge, Vol. 1: Mondo Exotica

Posted : 5 months, 4 weeks ago on 14 June 2018 04:52 (A review of Ultra-Lounge, Vol. 1: Mondo Exotica)

Ah, exotica, that most bizarre of subgenre of American jazz popular in the late 50s through the mid-60s that was an aural ersatz approximation of world music through an atomic prism. It didn’t actually sound anything like real music from a Hawaiian luau or the folk sounds of the Amazon, nor did it resemble anything out of the Andes or African tribal drums. Exotica was a pure fantasy creation that sounded right at home in the clean, rounded futuristic spaces viewed on The Jetsons.


Exotica relied upon a combination of rhythms (bongos, conga, bamboo sticks, vibes) alongside found sounds (jungle cat roars, primate shrieks, and bird calls most prominently) to give the vaguest sense of travelogue and safari-like adventures. The whole thing is infinitely preposterous, and then you add in the relative lack of singing in favor of siren-like vocal ululations and chants to make the entire thing sound like the soundtrack of a whacky sci-fi adventure.


Does this sound like a good time to you? Well, it should. Exotica remains a camp delight for those seeking it out. Lucky for you that Ultra-Lounge, Vol 1: Mondo Exotica exists to find a thorough sampling of the various types of exotica all in one place.


Martin Denny, the biggest purveyor of the sound who dubbed it “pure fantasy,” gets the largest amount of selections with six (“Swamp Fire,” “Hypotique,” “Misirlou,” “Jungle Madness,” “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish,” “Quiet Village”), and this is as it should be. You’ll essentially get another Denny song every third track. “Swamp Fire” sets the tone right out the gate, and if your first impression is something along the lines of “what the hell is this?” then you’re not alone. Exotica takes a while to wrap your brain around as it sounds carbon-dated to its era and delightfully space age.


If Denny’s strange lounge music populated with animal shrieks doesn’t make you think of the swinging sixties, then surely 80 Drums Around the World’s “Caravan” will do it. There is a breakdown in “Caravan” that wouldn’t sound out of place as the backdrop to a bunch of go-go dancing bikini girls on the beach. It’s charming in just how obtuse and kitsch it is.


Les Baxter, the godfather of the sound, gets four choices and they display how instrumental he was in laying the foundations. His songs sound less ornate and bizarre than others, compare his “Atlantis,” a dreamy little instrumental, Bas Sheva’s guttural moans and chants on “Lust” and you’ll hear how his ideas only grow once taken up by other artists. Baxter was clearly doing lounge music to everyone else’s dreamscapes of galactic frontiers and surf riders.


Another major player in the genre was Yma Sumac, a Peruvian singer blessed with a ridiculously large vocal range that she puts on full display on both of the choices here. “Babalu” gets transformed far away from its standardized form, you know it most readily from Ricky Ricardo’s persistent playing of it on I Love Lucy, and into something that sounds like a campy Amazonian Moon Queen’s band would play. While “Wimoweh” closes out the album, and it’s the closest that Ultra-Lounge, Vol 1: Mondo Exotica gets to a song played straight. Sumac still lets her backup singers deliver the chorus lines while she hits notes in the highest parts of her range and does a few runs. Sumac’s two songs are daffy and elegant, kitsch and sophisticated at the exact same time.        


Mondo Exotica keeps its track listing firmly on the side of the more digestible and accessible pieces of exotica, and it’s an inspired hour of strange, weird sounds. It becomes nearly narcotic in just how obtuse it all is. The Ultra-Lounge series was clearly off to a good start with this set that wisely alternates between the biggest players (Denny, Baxter, Sumac) and lesser-known choices (the Out-Islanders, 80 Drums Around the World, Tak Shindo). The whole collection emerges as a piece of essential listening for your next intergalactic beach party and cookout on Venus.


DOWNLOAD: Yma Sumac’s “Babalu,” the Out-Islanders’ “Moon Mist,” Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village”

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Lu Over the Wall

Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 18 May 2018 09:03 (A review of Lu Over the Wall)

A confusing, charming mess of a takeoff on The Little Mermaid, Lu Over the Wall is several different films vying for attention, all of them various degrees of good. If you could, just for a minute, imagine what would happen if a Miyazaki film was rammed through a Looney Tunes filter, and I’m talking about a Bob Clampett/Tex Avery brand of free associative lunacy here, with a dash of rock and roll movie and coming-of-age story as garnishes. Picture this, and you’ll come very close to approximating the chaotic reverie that is Lu Over the Wall.


The problem isn’t that director Masaaki Yuasa is lacking in ideas, but that he’s got too many of them buffeting against each other at any given time. We must absorb the mermaid mythology that the film deploys, and keep various characters straight, including their personal tragedies and relations to one another. It becomes a Sisyphean task, and the quicker you learn to let go coherence and embrace the chaos the better your enjoyment will be.


Lu Over the Wall spits in the face of logic and just proceeds to entertain us with vibrancy, slapstick, pleasingly kooky pop/rock, and the sight of mer-dogs. Here, mermaids closely resemble vampires in their inability to make direct contact with sunlight and turn you into one of their ranks through a fang-filled bite. Lu also doesn’t look like any mermaid I’ve ever seen previously. Her head resembles a jellyfish attached to the body of a koi, and she grows legs and starts dancing whenever she hears music. Her love for music and dance proves infectious as she causes mass breakouts of what looks like an Irish jig in the small fishing village’s denizens.


Look, none of this makes any sense, and your mileage will inevitably vary on how interested you are in watching the closest approximation of a Bob Clampett Studio Ghibli cartoon. Me? I tuned right into its crazy wavelength shortly after its quiet introductory scenes gave way towards Lu manipulating the water around her into gigantic cube shapes that took flight. And that’s not even counting the sight of an enormous humanoid shark wearing a suit and smoking a pipe wandering the streets! Lu Over the Wall isn’t anywhere near perfect, but it’s a damn entertaining and original run through a well-worn mythology. That counts for something.

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Posted : 7 months ago on 9 May 2018 09:14 (A review of Greatest)

Pop music so intrinsically tied to its era shouldn’t remain this breezy and fun. Yet here we are with Duran Duran’s Greatest, a nineteen song retrospective of their Top 40-minded alternative-pop hits and strongest minor singles. What remains crystal clear is that they mined the same territory that Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry blazed, but they did it with aspirations of pop dominance, music video blockbusters, and arena-ready ear worms.


Greatest cuts off at 1998, leaving behind some of the later albums like Red Carpet Massacre and Paper Gods, but it offers more than enough sonic pleasures and bang-for-your-buck expertly chosen songs than any other compilation album. It’s the sound of the Reagan years written in frothy baubles about girls, exotic locales, girls, James Bond, and girls, possibly on film. What’s most interesting is how if you remove the sunny production values and layers of synths from the mix, then you’re left with songs that could easily transform into aggressive early-punk classics.


Yet Duran Duran remains the most iconic band of the New Romantic movement, taking the crown from contemporaries like Culture Club, Eurythmics, and Adam Ant, and that’s a group with equally strong catalogues of music. This is the sound of MTV’s emerging power to make or break music acts, and songs like “Hungry Like the Wolf” immediately conjure up their equally well-known music videos. Duran Duran were just smart enough, and frankly uniformly attractive enough, to marry their strong song writing skills to glossy images of beautiful models, jet-set glamour, and their own artful pouting in smart outfits. It’s thrilling stuff.


But Greatest does live up to its title, and reminds us that they wouldn’t have achieved such lofty heights if the material wasn’t up to snuff. Any band would kill for a “Rio,” “Come Undone,” “A View to Kill” (one of the few Bond themes to emerge as a gargantuan hit), or “Is There Something I Should Know?” That’s just a sampling of Duran Duran’s material on parade here. There’s artier, smarter choices in guitar riffs or lyrical refrains here than their hunky lads that ate models for breakfast image would project. They were paying close attention to Roxy Music’s teachings after all.


And if you wonder if this material really does deserve your attention, then think about newer bands like the Killers so clearly pilfer from their songs. Hell, think of how an album like Rio hasn’t gained a pound since 1982. Now imagine only the nuggets from roughly twenty years of hits and experimentations assembled for your pleasure. It’s a hard bargain to turn down.


The only knock against Greatest is its chronological disarray. We hop around between eras and sounds like the band is performing a concert instead of presenting the crown jewels of their singles. Yet one could argue that lesser-known or largely ignored songs like “Electric Barbarella” and “All She Wants Is” now get equal prominence with the likes of “The Reflex” or “Notorious.” Yes, chronological order would be better, but Greatest is still an essential collection of the brightest from one of the 80s biggest and best acts.


DOWNLOAD: “Girls on Film,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Electric Barbarella” 

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Her Best

Posted : 7 months, 3 weeks ago on 20 April 2018 04:08 (A review of Her Best - The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection)

There’s plenty of bigger, badder collections of Etta James’ genre-bending blues growl out there, but if all you want is the cream of the crop from Miss Peaches then this collection is what you’re looking for. Her Best gathers up the essential moments from her Chess Records period, her most fertile, dynamic, and impactful era, into twenty songs of grit, bluesy turmoil, and triumph.


It all begins and ends with that voice. A thing that tremendous elasticity and power, at once capable of tenderly caressing as in the opening swoon of “At Last” as it is of storming in biblical might as in the climax of “Two Sides to Every Story.” James was never one for merely showing off her vocal dynamics just for the hell of it, no, she wanted to communicate the emotional truth of whatever she was singing.


She can bounce back and forth between guttural, nearly obscene carnality on some songs then do a completely believable turnaround on her finessed readings of ballads. Her instrument is one that defies easy classification. Is she blues, jazz, pop, soul, gospel, or rock? To answer to that question is yes, she’s all of it. She often makes the backup singers supporting her sound like automatons merely going through the motions in comparison to the emotional exorcism she’s giving.


Much of the first half of Her Best is occupied by selections from At Last! Not a surprising choice as that remains a definitive album and her greatest recording to date. “A Sunday Kind of Love,” “All I Could Do Is Cry,” and the yearning duet with Harvey Fuqua, “If I Can’t Have You,” haven’t lost their ability to grab hold of you after all these decades. Her Best is a great starting point, but make sure you go back and listen to all of At Last!


But it’s after the well-known recordings that the surprises pop-up, including a live cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby, What Do You Want Me to Do” that bursts with energy. The template for her career was set with her first album, but the permutations of it are quite pleasing. After all, James’ shocking touches of vulnerability and innocence make a song like “Pushover” just as believable as the inviting “Tell Mama” or the rapturous “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.”


For Chess’ 50th anniversary, they released several of these collections: Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, just to name a few. It’s a reminder that James is just as essential and as much of a powerhouse artist as any of those guys. The opening notes of “At Last” have toppled many a strong singer, and if that isn’t enough to knock you out, Her Best has nineteen more reasons for that argument.


DOWNLOAD: “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” “Fool That I Am,” “Tell Mama”

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The Ultimate Collection

Posted : 8 months ago on 13 April 2018 07:21 (A review of The Ultimate Collection)

You want a single disc assortment of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ combination of tear-stained love songs and straight-up party starters? Then seek out The Ultimate Collection, a compilation of twenty-five songs covering all the biggest hits, some lesser known greats, and a smattering of smartly chosen rarities. The Ultimate Collection was a series of seventeen albums covering the biggest, best of Motown’s enviable staple of artists, but Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ entry may tower above the others with its sheer artistic dominance.


The Ultimate Collection also makes one hell of an argument, backed up with plenty of evidence, for Smokey Robinson as one of the great writers of the rock era. He’s a man who belongs in the same breath as canonized Lennon/McCartney, Brian Wilson, and the acknowledge might of the Brill Building writers. Not that Smokey is hurting for deserved acclaim or praise for his artistry, legacy, and enduring works, but his placement needs a higher look. He could make a lovelorn lyric sing, flip, or dance depending on the moment.


Going to a Go-Go, the greatest studio album the group released, gets a deserving five selections, all of them classics (“The Tracks of My Tears,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “Choosey Beggar,” “Going to a Go-Go,” “My Girl Has Gone”). It’d be easy to just list these five songs off as both reason enough to seek this out and throw in a few randomly chosen selections like “The Tears of a Clown” or “I Second That Emotion,” but that would be a disservice to so many of the other jewels just waiting to make you boogey or cry along.


It would be too easy to just write at great length about these songs and that particular album. It’s one of the greatest ever released, and a personal favorite of mine. In order to give more shine to songs not off of Going to a Go-Go, I’m going to highlight other choices for the standout tracks. There’s more than enough gorgeous, lush music to choose from that not recommending “The Tracks of My Tears” or “Ooo Baby Baby” won’t feel like some kind of slight.  


One of the oldest songs here is “Way Over There,” one of the first proper Motown releases and produced by Berry Gordy, is a glimpse of the genius to come. Robinson’s vocals are impassioned with his voice frequently breaking into a pleasing rasp or swooping into a desperate falsetto. Claudette Robinson answers his pleas with a honey-sweet “come to me, baby,” and “Way Over There” is the first genius pop song from a man who would go on to write dozens and dozens more for himself and numerous others.


But it’s not all silver-tongued romanticism from the Miracles. Anyone who’s watched their set during The TAMI Show knows that they could throw a scorching party. “Mickey’s Monkey” is a comical little ditty that still boogies. The handclaps, call-and-response vocals, and the demands to do “the Monkey” dance mark it as an essential piece of early-60s dance anthems.


This portion of the Miracles output gets lesser audio time, but that makes sense. After all, Robinson was at his best when playing debonair romantic. The heart wrenching nature of “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “We’ve Come Too Far to End It Now” finds Robinson sobbing and the Miracles acting as a chorus of misery. These are the hits that made his legacy, and it makes sense that the tear-stained ballads and flirty love songs get the biggest chunk of time here. A better title for this would be Essential Listening.


DOWNLOAD: “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Mickey’s Monkey,” “We’ve Come Too Far to End It Now”

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We Are the 80s

Posted : 8 months ago on 13 April 2018 04:19 (A review of We Are the '80s)

They were created by music impresario Malcolm McLauren, he who also created the Sex Pistols and managed/advised groups like the Slits and New York Dolls, crafted Bow Wow Wow in 1980 after several members of the Ants left Adam Ant behind. He found a then-teenaged Annabella Lwin singing at a dry cleaners she worked at part-time and auditioned her as the group’s lead singer. The rest is New Wave history. Well, minor history. Bow Wow Wow had a few hits, but they’re mostly known for their cover of the Strangeloves’ garage rock classic “I Want Candy.”


They were a novelty, sure, but they performed their surf-punk ditties with a world beat swagger. Lwin was never much of a singer, but what she lacked in technique she made up for in push power and a certain ability to alternate between camp princess and girlish squeal. Look at how she does a mean punk sneer on debut single “C30, C60, C90, Go” then practically sticks her tongue in both cheeks at the same time to deliver the brazen “Louis Quatorze” later on. In-between the boys pound away at a furious pace that only pauses long enough for Lwin to encourage us to join the “Mile High Club.” Wait, isn’t she underage here?


Adolescent sexual fantasies are kept to a minimum, but there’s lots of big hooks, bit beats, and aggressive posing to keep things from being too icky. We Are the 80s distills a brief career down to the essentials and clocks in at a brisk 44 minutes. Not too bad for a band that only lasted three years and whose best albums was already a compilation, 1982’s I Want Candy.


DOWNLOAD: “C30, C60, C90, Go”

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